April 02, 2008

Eat It Up

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan, 2006

Well I'd been thinking about reading this one for a while, and when someone was lovely enough to loan the book to me recently, I dug right in.

The book is about food, the food industries, and our relationship to what we eat. Rather than get into the specifics of the topics, though, I want to talk about the author's prose style, tone, and structural choices, which to a large extent carry the book.

If you've read here before, you know that I'm not much of a nonfiction reader (unless it's music-related stuff). This kind of work really makes me rethink my stance on nonfiction, though, because Pollan manages to do things that really good fiction does: talk about what it means to be human, illuminate some of the complex web of societal relationships, imaginatively exemplify ways of being in the world, bring to life modes of thought and emotion.

At its base, this is a work of journalism: a (mostly) first-hand investigative report on the way we eat and the supply-chain that keeps the supermarket shelves stocked. It's also a personal story about the author's education in such matters and his experiences along the way. One aspect of poor nonfiction writing is the use of personal experience as a mere "hook" to make the big dry subject seem human-scaled, or worse, to provide a kind of comic relief from the weightiness of the larger ideas. There is none of that here. On the contrary, Pollan deftly uses his narrative passages as a springboard into reflection and, yes, even philosophy. We are always focused in the true subject matter of the book, just approaching it from different angles.

The author's job is made easier, of course, by the fact that cooking and eating are things we all do daily. The main structural conceit at play here - that Pollan is describing the whole story (personal and political) behind four meals that he eats - provides an opportunity to engage each of his four topics with varying mixtures of memoir, literature survey, first-hand account, conversation, science reportage, interview, recipes, etc. True, a couple of the attempts fall flat (one chapter in which Pollan has an imaginary conversation with the author of a book on vegetarianism struck me as particularly stilted), but even the less-than-stellar passages carry the thread forward. There are rich and cogent arguments being made here, and they have an immediacy to a reader who will eat many meals during the course of reading the book.

And make no mistake that this is a fascinating, multi-layered topic, very worthy of the deep exploration here and then some. It's a breeze to read and full of fun conversation starters, in addition to being impeccably well-written and well-researched. It's made me think twice about everything I have been cooking since the very first chapter.

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